Sebastian Smee

A mask that eats the face

Sebastien Smee on Patrick French's biography of V.S. Naipaul

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The World Is What It Is

Patrick French

Macmillan, pp. 128, £

A man whose personal life contains as many potentially unflattering episodes as V. S. Naipaul might easily have been resistant to the idea of biographical scrutiny. In fact, however, Naipaul has shown himself remarkably hospitable to the idea. In 1994 he went so far as to say: ‘A full account of a writer’s life might in the end be more of a work of literature and more illuminating — of a cultural or historical moment — than the writer’s books.’

Writing in the introduction to his authorised biography of Naipaul, Patrick French makes use of this (surely disingenuous) statement to legitimate his project. But he also makes it clear that he is not fooled: into Naipaul’s willingness to co-operate with him he reads as much narcissism as humility.

Believing his book to be ‘perhaps the last literary biography to be written from a complete paper archive,’ French wallows a little too indulgently in his sources. At times the narrative reads like a collage of quotations. And yet this remains a brilliant biography: exemplary in its thoroughness, sympathetic but tough in tone. Against Naipaul’s own increasing ‘tendency to caricature himself in public’, and against the distortions peddled by snubbed friends and ideological enemies, French has set down a complex and credible portrait. Reading it, I was enthralled — and frequently amused (how incredibly funny Naipaul can be!). I was also continually aware of a great and unrelenting pressure on the developing writer; it suffuses the book like suspense.

A gifted boy in colonial Trinidad, V. S. Naipaul was indulged in a predominantly female household. But his crowded home life was disputatious and squalid. The circumstances of his upbringing, described by Naipaul himself with a level of insight French cannot hope to improve on, affected him profoundly.

One cannot help but be moved by the boy’s achievement in winning a scholarship to Oxford: so much was made to depend on it. Equally moving — indeed, distressing — is the story of his father Seepersad’s humiliation. A journalist, proudly rationalist and fired with reforming zeal, Seepersad had written articles dismissing Hindu superstition as ‘bunkum’. Offended local Hindus threatened his life in retaliation, and he was forced to atone by participating in an animal sacrifice. The story made international news. Seepersad never recovered his bearings.

French rates Seepersad’s only published book of fiction highly, and makes it clear that the example he set for the budding writer was crucial. So the letters that pass between father and son after Naipaul has arrived in England — letters at once encouraging to a son in crisis and needy on his own behalf (he desperately wanted Vidia’s help with his own literary ambitions) — are immensely poignant.

Many details emerging from the early years of struggle are lovely to read: Naipaul, for instance, depositing his first cheque at the bank, and the teller standing to shake his hand. Naipaul copying out extracts from early reviews to show his mother ‘like a tiger cub bringing home his first kill’.

The question of Naipaul’s status as a Brahmin is never quite resolved. Previous commentators — Paul Theroux in particular — have used it as a convenient explanation for Naipaul’s legendary haughtiness and fastidiousness. French sees things differently. To begin with, caste in Indian culture is patrilineal and, as Naipaul admits, ‘my father’s background is confused in my mind’. Nonetheless, he did embrace the ‘implied caste sense’ of his mother’s Brahmin family (despite rejecting almost everything else about them).

Either way, French believes the whole question is a distraction. In a key statement halfway through the book, he writes:

Contrary to the depredations that would be launched against Vidia with increasing force over the coming decades, his moral axis was not white European culture, or pre-Islamic Hindu culture, or any other passing culture; it was internal, it was himself.

Trying to explain Naipaul’s contrariness, his political provocations, his increasingly outrageous behaviour, French makes mention of the Trinidadian trait of ‘playing ole mas’, which apparently means ‘masquerading or making trouble for [one’s] own entertainment’. He also quotes an old schoolboy acquaintance of Naipaul saying that masks are indispensable in Trinidadian culture if one is to negotiate the island’s many ethnicities.

But the metaphor is taken further when French interprets Naipaul’s self-conception as ‘the writer’ — aloof and unanswerable to anyone — as his own form of mask. Behind it, he convincingly suggests, Naipaul became fragile and brittle. Thus the writer’s persona became, writes French, a mask ‘that eats into the face’ (the phrase was coined, as I remember, by John Updike to describe celebrity).

The story of Naipaul’s long involvement with his first wife Patricia is heartrending. At least, it is at first. The book ends with her death in 1996, by which time one’s pity is exhausted and one can do little more than shake one’s head.

From the start, their sexual incompatability is clear. And yet many of the letters between them are full of love and hope. They met when Naipaul was at his lowest ebb. ‘He had moved beyond Wertherism,’ writes French; ‘he was going off the rails.’ Pat came to the rescue, as she would do repeatedly in the future. She helped him in every way she could. But in the long term her devotion to him simply was not reciprocated (unless dependency counts as devotion).

The letter she wrote to him, soon after their marriage, that includes the line ‘I do feel the lack of a ring acutely’ is a remarkable thing, not least because the lack is never corrected. The all-round pathos is only increased when Naipaul loses their marriage certificate and, later, starts sleeping with prostitutes.

The injuries at first seem evenly shared. Naipaul, always attracted to the idea of debauchery, seems to have suffered from their physical incompatibility and his own sexual inexperience far more than she did. But eventually it is Pat — unable to have children, verbally abused, betrayed, continually exploited, publicly humiliated and finally killed off by terminal breast cancer — who tips the scales of suffering her own way.

In the process of failing to leave her, Naipaul claimed to have discovered ‘the strength of the weak’. And indeed at times the two of them seem, in Saul Bellow’s memorable phrase, like ‘the knife and the wound aching for each other.’ ‘I should have left,’ he told French. ‘I didn’t have the brutality. Isn’t it strange? People would say that what I was doing was quite brutal.’

What he did to his lover Margaret Gooding, who transformed his life and his writing in the 1970s, was not just emotionally brutal. Of their most tempestuous period together he told French: ‘I was very violent with her for two days. I was very violent with her for two days with my hand. My hand began to hurt … She didn’t mind it at all.’

Sex — urgent, plentiful, and tending toward the sadomasochistic — was the foundation of their relationship, and French is neither shy nor euphemistic about saying so. Its affect, in Naipaul’s own words, was ‘staggering’: ‘I will never run it down,’ he said.

But as the debauch dwindles, to be replaced by shameless two-timing and bullying, even French’s sympathy snaps. Margaret, he testily writes, ‘was Vidia’s ideal woman: he could string her along and mistreat her, with her abject consent.’

French is good on the books, remaining measured and trustworthy even when plainly excited by works of special importance, such as A House for Mr Biswas, An Area of Darkness and A Bend in the River. His accounts of Naipaul’s relationships with publishers, agents, supporters and fellow writers make for some of the most interesting passages. Francis Wyndham, a long-term supporter, and Diana Athill, Naipaul’s editor at André Deutsch, feature prominently. Deutsch himself, says Wyndham, did not offer the kind of backing Naipaul deserved, and as with Naipaul’s sexual life, early starvation led to certain compensatory drives later on. Thus, French’s accounts of the various deals with publishers and magazine editors in the post-Deutsch era have their own entertainment value.

Paul Theroux, who wrote two books about Naipaul and for a long time regarded him as a mentor, is treated with barely disguised contempt. Ample justification is given — Theroux does seem like a creep — but French’s irritability is hard to miss, and reads suspiciously like irritation on his subject’s behalf.

The accounts of Naipaul’s various travels, his information-gathering techniques, and his methods for converting research into writing are never less than fascinating. One marvels at his ability to extract favours from people, and learns amusing things such as what it is he likes about hotels: ‘the temporariness, the mercenary services, the absence of responsibility, the anonymity, the scope for complaint.’

When Naipaul was writing his most ambitious non-fiction works, writes French, ‘there was no other writer of stature who was analysing societies in this detached, global way’. As his ambition surged in the 1970s, his sense of his special status grew stronger, a process that did not take place without self-reflection:

It may … be that one’s sense of dissolution has now spread [he wrote in his journal then], that there are no longer places where one can retreat; that I am now aware of a more general insecurity and, perhaps importantly, less of a colonial.

The insecurity may have spread and become ‘general’, but Naipaul remained determined never to lose his singularity. Unlike the Arabs in Africa he describes in A Bend in the River, cut off from the cultural authority of their homeland, he would not allow his own position in the world to be undermined. ‘The world is what it is,’ he wrote in the first lines of that book, providing French with the title of this biography; ‘men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’